Another year, another anthology. This year's anthology seemed less adventurous, style-wise, than some of the earlier entries, and the stories were not of uniformly high quality. Geoff Ryman, for example, has done much better than his somewhat scantily plotted and characterized entry here, even though the idea itself is quite clever--in fact, I much preferred one of editor Gardner Dozois' runner-ups, Neil Gaiman's eerie "Closing Time." Similarly, John Varley's entry here does not stand up well when compared to his own earlier work. The two comic stories, Kage Baker's "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst" and Paul Di Filippo's "And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon," however, were indeed amusing, especially Di Fillippo's tale of household appliances run dangerously (erotically!) amuck. The most successful entry was Steven Popkes' "The Ice," which meditates on the relationship between cloning and human identity; the protagonist, a clone of a famous hockey star, first goes into public meltdown after he discovers the truth, then survives multiple tragedies before, in the end, firmly asserting that his identity is his own. "Chance," the narrative suggests, proves far more important than deliberate human engineering.
Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Fluted Girl" and Michael Swanwick's "King Dragon" are the most psychologically disturbing stories of the lot: both of them imagine adults (or, er, iron dragons) trying to strip children of their wills, the better to exploit them for personal gain. In both cases, though, the children ultimately rebel, with deadly or possibly deadly results. Neither story is particularly optimistic about the larger outcomes of such rebellions; we're left hanging in "The Fluted Girl" (and where would the girls go aftewards, the reader wonders) and told that More Bad Things happen after the end of "King Dragon" (with Holocaust overtones, to make matters worse). Harry Turtledove* is more experimental than usual in his punchy alternative history, "Joe Steele" (= Joseph Stalin). A sample:
Joe Steele. Congressman from California. Not San Francisco. Not Nob Hill. Good Lord, no. Fresno. Farm country. That great valley, squeezed by mountains east and west. Not a big fellow, Joe Steele. Stands real straight, so you don't notice too much. Mustache, a good-sized one. Thick head of hair starting to go gray. Eyelids like shutters. When they go down and then come up again, you can't see what was behind them.
Turtledove writes the entire story in this combination of paratactic sentences and sentence fragments, relying heavily on repetition (as in the increasingly ritualistic invocations of "Joe Steele") and anaphora, and moving the narrative along more by association than by strict plot. The "you" is both sardonic observer and powerless outsider; he or she is ever-so-slightly seduced by Steele's appeal to the masses, while also aware of just how dangerous Steele actually is. Steele, as the "shutters" simile suggests, keeps his thoughts to himself. All we know is what he chooses to tell us, and what he chooses to tell us is hardly the entire truth.
Given the criticism I've been mainlining/downloading/ingesting lately, I couldn't help but pick up on the science-fiction-as-exploration-of-historical-consciousness stories, especially Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "June Sixteenth at Anna's" and Walter Jon Williams' "The Green Leopard Plague." Both explore how technology reshapes our understanding of the past as past, as lost--or, perhaps, doesn't reshape it at all. In "June Sixteenth at Anna's," scientists have figured out how to combine time travel and futuristic recording devices to capture everyday conversations; such recorded conversations, slices from the past, in turn attract fans and (in an amusing poke at academics like yours truly) the requisite critics. The story's protagonist, whose dead wife was not only featured in "June Sixteenth at Anna's," but also obsessed with it, simultaneously yearns to make some contact with his lost wife through the recording and to understand why, exactly, she felt driven to watch it over and over again. In this case, even the most vivid technology fails to recapture the past for those still living; that old platitude about people being "alive" in our memories conspicuously fails to function, for all that the protagonist has left "were her ghosts" (197). In the conflict between death and new technologies of memory, death wins. "The Green Leopard Plague" is, in some ways, far more brutal. It's a parallel-plot tale, much like A. S. Byatt's Possession, divided between a paid researcher, Michelle, who is a human-turned-ape-turned-mermaid (OK, OK, just read the story) and a long-dead scholar, Terzian, who, after his wife's death, has an inconveniently unrecorded intellectual crisis. Michelle tries to reconstruct Terzian's story from just a few photographs and other fragmentary evidence, found via a super-duper-souped-up WWW. Terzian's half of the narrative, meanwhile, gives us the truth. Both halves turn, explicitly or implicitly, on questions of economic value. If you re-engineer people so that they can photosynthesize, what happens to the economy? That is, if subsistence no longer requires labor, what value will labor's products have? And if death is no longer permanent--the story distinguishes between "realdeath," rare and almost unthinkable, and a kind of death reversable by backup drives and cloning--then what happens to the value of human life? Williams suggests that undoing death obstructs Michelle's ability to understand the truth of what she discovers; in good postmodern fashion, she projects her own problematic (to say the least) love-life onto Terzian, largely because she can neither understand his motives or his difference. While she gets some of the story right, much of its personal resonance is beyond her grasp:
It was realdeath that people suffered then, the death that couldn't be corrected. Michelle knew that she understood that kind of death only as an intellectual abstract, not as something she would ever have to face or live with. To lose someone permanently...that was something she couldn't grasp. Even the ancients, who faced realdeath every day, hadn't been able to accept it, that's why they'd invented the myth of Heaven.
For her, loss itself has little meaning, because what is lost can always be rebuilt again. Things are never quite past. In Rusch's story, technology failed because it could only provide a useless simulacrum, but in Williams' story, technology eradicates much of the past's integrity. Paradoxically, the past really is dead for Michelle, because death itself no longer exists. And because she can no longer understand the scholar's motives, she can turn the past into her own fantasy of true romance.
Despite my opening grumbles, there's quite a bit of good reading here. If, like me, you have to ration your SF intake, Dozois is, as always, a fine guide to the most interesting authors in the field.
*--Full disclosure time: Turtledove dedicated one of his books to my father.